Butterflies in Disguise
How often do we actually recognize the butterflies that our personal metamorphoses produce?
The caterpillar-to-cocoon-to-butterfly progression has long been a favorite metaphor for the process of human transformation. And rightly so; the stages of this remarkable biological metamorphosis are perfectly suited to illustrate the way something new emerges when we let go of old forms and patiently wait through a chrysalis stage before that something new is fully formed and strong enough to fly. But the other day I saw a butterfly photo that triggered an important question: How often do we actually recognize the butterflies that our personal metamorphoses produce? How many emerge from their cocoons only to be ignored?
Some butterflies are pretty hard to miss. The shrinking violet who emerges as a confident leader; the terrified, newly single mom who discovers a core of personal empowerment that turns her into a dynamo of effective action; the mediocre student who becomes a brilliant doctor; the rags-to-riches stories of those who go from inability to pay the rent to the pinacle of financial success. Transformations like these tend to flutter across blue skies on radiant wings, like spectacular monarchs on a summer day.
But for every obvious butterfly, countless others quietly emerge from their cocoons only to blend into the environment of our lives. So subtle is their presence, that if we are not careful we will miss them. This is what I began to ponder as I looked at a brown butterfly that my son photographed on a branch. Its coloration was so muted that I even questioned whether maybe it was a moth instead. I began to think about the many ways we miss the butterflies that represent our own transformations.
We live in a world that emphasizes measurable, visible results. And though such results are obviously very important to our tangible needs, the hunt for butterflies in disguise leads us into very different territory. Here, finding a wonderful new partner after a painful divorce takes a back seat to the deepened self-knowledge that such life upheavals can bring. In this territory, career failure may never transform miraculously into new heights of success, but instead leaves one humbled and less inclined to judge others’ failures. In the land of butterflies in disguise, bereavement may not stop hurting, but at the same time it inspires us to live in ways that honor the one we have lost. It is where a terminal illness does not reverse to bring healing of the body, but instead polishes the soul’s brightness. It is the realm where childhood traumas and abuse never make sense and never go away completely, but nonetheless drive the victim to be a force for good in the lives of a new generation of children.
One of my favorite passages in literature gives a beautiful description of the process that produces what I am calling butterflies in disguise. This excerpt, taken from George Eliot’s Adam Bede, is from a scene late in the novel, when the title character has begun to resume his life after a time of great personal loss:
For Adam, though you see him quite master of himself, working hard and delighting in his work after his inborn inalienable nature, had not outlived his sorrow – had not let it slip from him as a temporary burthen, and leave him the same man again. Do any of us? God forbid. It would be a poor result of all our anguish and our wrestling, if we won nothing but our old selves at the end of it – if we could return to the same blind loves, the same self-confident blame, the same light thoughts of human suffering, the same frivolous gossip over blighted human lives, the same feeble sense of that Unknown toward which we have sent forth irrepressible cries in our loneliness. Let us rather be thankful that our sorrow lies in us as an indestructible force, only changing its form, as forces do, and passing from pain into sympathy – the one poor word which includes all our best insight and our best love.
To find butterflies in disguise, look elsewhere than at the bright, the shining, the triumphant and the celebratory moments. Look rather to wherever people allow their most difficult life experiences to stretch them, deepen them, or open up their compassion. What may seem at first to be moth-like creatures of the night may in fact be the evidence that we are becoming something we would not have been, but for the trials that beset us. Look for those struggles that cultivate wisdom. Look for those adversities that develop deepened self-knowledge. Look underneath loss to find radical acceptance. And – most of all – look for the wounds that transmute from bitterness into love.
 George Eliot, Adam Bede (New York: The Modern Library, 1940), p. 353
Butterfly photos courtesy of Ryan Sparrow